Those huddled masses yearning to see Gaugin. Or, how I spent my Christmas holiday in Paris.
In a word, Paris is CROWDED. The most popular tourist destination in the world is busy year-round, but the holiday period seems to be a particularly crazy time. It is, after all, "The City of Light". And it more than lives up to its reputation this time of year--glittering and glistening glamorously in all its historic splendor. There in nothing in the world like seeing the Champs-Elysées on New Year's Eve! Perhaps a million revelers and many more lights!
Everywhere we went there were lines--LONG lines to see the top attractions. Even with a Paris Museum Pass (a MUST!!! www.parismuseumpass.fr) the usually manageable lines for those WITH tickets (avec billets) were lengthy. The poor schlubs who haven't read Rick Steves' "Paris Guide" were standing in line for hours just to buy a ticket and then in another line to enter the exhibits. This story repeated itself again and again. From the Louvre to Musée d'Orsay to Sainte-Chapelle, lines often snaked around the block! At one point, we witnessed people lined at least twelve deep around holding stanchions and THEN around the block at Orsay in a line that would make Disneyland (or airport security) look like clear sailing.
Even with a "reserved" time to tour the Eiffel Tower (available online at www.tour-eiffel.fr), we waited 45 minutes in the freezing cold to get inside and up to the second level. Here you have the opportunity to wait in another line for the privilege of traveling to the top of the monument. I don't know about you, but lines are not my favorite activity. Especially in the cold. Did I mention that it's cold, and usually rainy, this time of year in Paris? The best photos are from level two anyway, and that vertigo thing usually kicks in for me at altitudes higher than my roof. So, I was just fine viewing beautiful Paris from 377 feet above ground level.
Now what, you may ask, does any of this have to do with food or wine? Well, of course, Parisian restaurants, cafes and brasseries are the hallmark of this great city, and we had our share of dining out (which I will highlight shortly). We also had a rare opportunity to experience Paris from a completely different perspective: in the city's pleasure boat harbor, Port de Plaisance de Paris Arsenal. Our "hotel" for the week was a beautiful 65 foot yacht docked near the River Seine. A dear friend invited us to use his boat as our base for our visit. What an incredible time. We were docked near the historic Bastille (only a monument now), with immediate access to one the city's oldest and most exciting neighborhoods, The Marais district. We had the best of both worlds: the heart of Paris at our fingertips, and a place to escape the crowds and "go home" on our boat. Our special accommodations allowed us to prepare numerous meals in the comfort of our own galley and to spend a lot of time shopping in the various markets, boulangeries, and pâttisseries that make Paris so much fun.
One foodie district that all seasoned visitors to Paris recommend, and we concur, is the famous Rue Cler near the Champ de Mars (the Eiffel Tower neighborhood). Here you'll find a fabulous assortment of shops and cafes, including some of the most delightful fromageries in the city. When we weren't having home-cooked meals on the boat, or waiting in line for Van Gogh, we did manage to scoot away on The Metro (the most wonderful public transportation system in the world) for some outstanding lunches and dinners.
Our most memorable experience was at Michel Rostang's incredible Dessirier. This may be the ultimate Paris restaurant for fresh fish (poisson). Our dining companions (both Parisian natives) call it the best in the city for fresh seafood. Our meal proved them correct. Smoked salmon appetizers (Le Saumon marine "Gravelaks" from Norway) were the most flavorful I have ever tasted. Succulent roasted turbot and seabass main courses were perfectly prepared. The wine list is outstanding. Desserts are the perfect closing compliment. This is polished dining at its best. And, well worth the price.
9, Place du Marechal-Juin, Paris 75017 (17th arrondisement) 01 42 27 82 14, www.restaurantdessirier.com or www.michelrostang.com.
A lively experience that gives Paris café dining a good name can be found in the 7th in the heart of the bustling Place de l'Ecole Militare: La Terrasse du 7ème. Tables outside give you access to the entertaining people parade on the street. Inside, comfortable banquettes and cozy tables offer a great setting to enjoy the simple brasserie menu. Steaks are recommended (l'entrecote). The tenderloin I had came with the tastiest pepper sauce I have ever had. I know it's rude to sop it up with the bread, but the combination was irresistible and unbeatable. Crêpes are succulent. The wine list is brief and inexpensive. The service is brisk, but friendly. English is well spoken, and your attempt to speak French is embraced. 2 Place de l'Ecole Militaire, Paris 75007, 01 45 55 94 67. firstname.lastname@example.org.
After escaping the long lines at Notre Dame, we ducked into a little spot nearby in Ile de la Cité called Les Deux Palais, a great place for a sandwich--see the giant Croque Monsieur here that dazzled the Japanese tourists sitting next to us ("It's so big!")-- or a slice of quiche, a beer, coffee (avoid Café Américain) or glass of wine (verre de vin).
3 Boulevard du Palais, Paris 75004, 01 43 54 20 86.
A double treat is touring the Rodin Museum and then stopping for a quick lunch at the museum's cafeteria in the beautiful gardens. It's quick and inexpensive, and the setting provides a beautiful backdrop for your meal. Musée Rodin, 79 rue de Varenne, Paris 75007. www.musee-rodin.fr.
An upscale museum meal that is well worth trying is the delightful restaurant at Musée d'Orsay. Located on the upper level of the museum, Restaurant du Musée d'Orsay's décor is a work of art in and of itself. Your meal is set among beautiful Louis XIV frescoes and objects d'art, with a beautiful view of the Seine. Look for a full-range lunch menu and beverages (boissons) until 3 p.m., and lighter plates and tea service (thé) until closing at 6 p.m. We found the service to be very friendly despite a reputation to the contrary. 1, rue de la Légion d'honneur, Paris 7e, 01 45 49 42 33, www.musee-orsay.fr.
A very interesting spot in our Marais neighborhood is an Algerian restaurant called Chez Léon (its name paying homage, we think, to the nearby Gare de Lyon). The sign on the door simply says "Cous Cous Restaurant". We found a fascinating menu of skillfully prepared and tasty tangine dishes featuring lamb and chicken. The cous cous was light, airy and delicious. This simple restaurant is a prime example of the joy of Paris dining. If you're willing to experiment and be slightly adventurous it usually pays off. 25, rue de Lyon, Paris 75012. 01 43 43 60 22.
Of course, there are about two dozen more restaurants we wanted to try and did not have time to visit. Notable among them is La Fontaine de Mars. This is a favorite of President Barack Obama. Our good friend Troy Dungan recommends it, too. We haven't had a chance to ask the president, but Troy and his wife Janet love it. Located at 129 Rue St. Dominique, 01 47 05 46 44.
Another restaurant that comes with high recommendations from Paula Lambert and Patrick Esquerre is l'Entrecote just off Boulevard Saint Germain and Rue Bonaparte just behind the world famous Café Flore. This is supposed to be one of the best steak restaurants in Paris and very inexpensive.
Alas, both of these fine restaurants were closed when we were nearby. Too early, I fear, for proper dining in Paris. Ah, so little time to try the great restaurants. That is why Vicki and I join the throngs who say, "We'll always have Paris" and so many reasons to return. Now, THAT'S a nice crowd to be in! Bon appétit!